It’s not because you’re weak!

“Fall seven times, stand up eight.” —Japanese proverb

The statistics aren’t promising: Only 8 percent of the people who make New Year’s resolutions actually achieve their goals. Since my resolutions don’t seem to change much from one year to the next, with only varying degrees of progress each time, I don’t suppose I should be all that surprised.

Although we actually have the same opportunities to start fresh every day, there’s something about flipping the calendar from December to January that can’t help but renew our optimism and determination.

But then, why do so many of us fail?

The classes at the gym are mobbed for a few weeks, and in a short time, it’s back to the regulars only. We find a box of cookies we didn’t manage to polish off in December or discover a cigarette just as the withdrawal craving hits. We catch ourselves starting to slip only a few days into the year.

You know…. the year we were going to get it right.

Even in ideal situations with sufficient time, support and money to achieve our goals, our best intentions are easily undone by perfectionism.

Being a perfectionist is a sneaky little condition that sabotages even the strongest convictions in all sorts of underhanded ways. Perfectionism is the little voice we hear whispering that we’re not good enough, not deserving enough—and just plain not doing it right.

There are several ways perfectionism messes with our heads—not to mention with our resolutions, intentions, goals, or whatever we decide to call them.

Here are five ways perfectionism undermines even your best efforts: 

1. Perfectionism creates unrealistic expectations.

Perfectionism bullies by making super-human demands, lacking patience with results, and distorting your sense of who you’re supposed to be.

Most resolutions require steady efforts and a long-game approach. Make sure your objectives are right for you—your body, your schedule, your abilities, and your budget. Then remain open to adjusting as necessary, practical, and reasonable, as well as to loosening up on timelines as you go in order to increase your odds of success.

2. Perfectionism thrives on all-or-nothing thinking.

This is one of the most dangerous tricks perfectionism has up its sleeve—the one that equates anything short of complete success with total failure. It robs you of any tolerance for imperfect progress, allowing even the tiniest misstep to seemingly throw you miles off target.

Pay attention to generalizations and a tendency to over-predict negative outcomes, such as in thoughts like:

“I’ll never succeed.”
“Nobody will ever read this.”
“I’ll always be fat.”
“I’ll die in this stupid job.”

These are habitual defenses that prevent you from sticking with your goals. Cut yourself some slack and recognize that persistence is far more important to success than flawless performance or immediate results.

3. Perfectionism can lead to procrastination.

This sounds something like, “I’ll start as soon as I… (finish the fudge, fit into my swimsuit, complete my degree, play one more game).”

Perfectionism loves to mess with our priorities and has dozens of ways to distract us or slow us down up its sleeve.

Toss the fudge. Buy a new swimsuit. Start on your novel. Delete the stupid game if you have to. Moving forward is its own success. Confront “I can’t …” messages as they arise, so they stop running your life once and for all.

4. Perfectionism lends itself to telescopic thinking.

Didn’t throw a perfect bowl your first time behind the potter’s wheel? Barely made it through that new yoga class? A whole month into the semester and you’re not fluent in Italian yet? Oh, my!

Perfectionism sabotages your intentions with discouragement and despair. It also twists your sense of progress with something called telescopic thinking—minimizing your successes while maximizing failures and flaws. (How often do you look in the mirror and fixate on something you don’t like, often to the exclusion of the perfectly lovely things you tend to ignore or take for granted?)

This little trick also makes it hard to gauge when a task is sufficiently complete. The house is never quite clean enough. There’s always another pound to lose. You revise your work over and over, constantly looking for things you can improve or correct—and then you miss your deadline in the process.

Turn the telescope around! Start noting what you got right and shuffle the “failures” into a new category called “works-in-progress.” Know that everything can always be tweaked for improvement, so call it “done” for now and move on.

5. Perfectionism loves to make unhealthy comparisons.

We are conditioned to define ourselves in comparison to others. We are bombarded with images of happy, beautiful, successful people tagged with hints about how we can be just like them… if we just buy this or do that.

Comparing yourself to others will always trip you up because there will always be someone younger, prettier, smarter, more fit, more wealthy, more successful, or more whatever. (Of course, there is also that temporary fix you can get from judging others as inferior, but that will fizzle fast.)

Appreciate your uniqueness and set realistic standards that work for you. Comparing yourself to your own previous successes puts you into a similar imaginary competition, one in which you usually end up feeling disheartened and defeated.

Set your intentions in present time. You’ve never been who you are right now, so stop holding yourself to expectations that worked in the past.

Wanting to improve some aspect of your life is absolutely admirable. However, you severely decrease your chances for success when you:

  • Start from a place of self-loathing or guilt.
  • Attempt to gain conditional acceptance, recognition, or approval from others.
  • Believe that accomplishing your goal will make you more worthwhile as a person.
  • Use your goal to cope with (or cover up) feelings of emptiness, loneliness, or fear.

Thinking that any of these motivators can sustain your commitment to positive growth is a set-up—and it’s unlikely to end well.

Think about what lies behind your intentions and try to align them with an authentic, optimistic, and meaningful purpose that doesn’t seek to inflate your popularity, status, or sense of self-worth.

If necessary, reach out for help to heal the cracks you are trying to fill, as any of the above might indicate a need for some deeper work, which most of us need to do at some point in our lives.

If you’re serious about successfully executing your resolutions, there’s a good chance you’ll have to face down some old, destructive messages.

To ensure you stick to your new, personal call-to-action:

Learn to course-correct.

Recognize when the road is too steep to climb or the timeline too short for success. Make continual adjustments for gradual improvement over time.

Recognize everything we do it really about learning.

Failure or success—there is a lesson in both. Remove the judgments and examine each outcome in terms of what worked and what you can do differently.

Try again, try again, try again.

If you can pull your resolutions off without a hitch, more power to you (although frankly, I’m tempted to suggest raising the bar a bit). If you’re like most people, you will slip. Don’t wait until next January to start over. Midnight brings a new day and it’s always close to midnight somewhere in the world. Never, ever give up.

Remember to use the volume control.

Recognize and acknowledge negative messages you send yourself, so you can manage it with a simple, “Oh, yeah. I know that one. OK, thanks …” to reduce the impact of your harsh inner critic. If you can’t quiet the voices, turn up the music to drown them out—and dance.

Adapted from content in The Perfection Deception: Why Trying to Be Perfect is Sabotaging Your Relationships, Making You Sick, and Holding Your Happiness Hostage. (2015, Health Communications, Deerfield Beach, FL) This piece was written for the YourTango blog in 2017.

© 2017, 2022, Dr. Jane Bluestein

Related resources:

Book: The Perfection Deception: Why Trying to Be Perfect is Sabotaging Your Relationships, Making You Sick, and Holding Your Happiness Hostage.

Perfectionism vs. The Healthy Pursuit of Excellence
Picking up the Pieces: Reclaiming our Essence
Starting Over is Not Failure
15 Things You Should Give Up to Be Happy
15 Ways to Live Optimistically
36 Things You can Do to Feel Great
6 Ways to Take More Time for Yourself (take a break from your kids)
8 Ways To Start Being Your Authentic Self
The Myth of the Self-Esteem “Myth”
Another Perfectionism Statistic

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